Monday, May 31, 2010

Pulau Tioman, Malaysia


The Tioman Island is located a 3 hour boat ride from a small town of Mersing.

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I originally heard about Tioman from Martin ( I introduced him in the previous post) who got Padi scuba certified out there. Originally, my certification was going to be completed in Thailand, but since the bombs started exploding in the capital, I decided to stay out of the country. I headed to Tioman with Jule and her Malaysian friend Afham. We got off the boat at the last stop, Salang. It was already dark and we had no reservations. As suggested by Martin, we walked North along the shore until almost at the end of the road, we reached a Ella's Bungalows and there happened to be a vacancy. We got a $20 Bungalow which we later upgraded to a $30 bungalow due to lodging availability problems during the May 1st holiday weekend.

Our first day on the island, we decided to swim to the little island that can be seen to the right of the shore in the picture below.

Jule decided to swim from our hotel while Afham and I started along the rocks in order for the crossing to be shorter. We were warned that there is a significant amount of boat traffic between the two islands and that crossing must be done with caution. Afham got a cramp at about half way, so he stopped on the rocks. At that point, I had to quickly swim to Jule who was getting worried about what was taking us so long. On my way to the island, I got yelled at by a passing boat for swimming across w/out a life jacket. Tired, I reached the island and Jule swam off to check on Afham. She was to give me a signal when she reached Afham either to swim back or to wait for them. When crawling out onto the rocks on the island to wait for Jule, I slipped a few times getting some scratches, no big deal. When Jule reached Afham, she signaled for me to return because he wasn't able to swim. I swam to them and decided to get out of the water for a break. The problem was the tide got higher and the waves were choppy. I underestimated the sharpness of the rocks and got cut up on my hips, legs and elbows quite a bit. I didn't even realize this until Afham pointed out blood that dripped off of of me. (Don't worry, I'm all healed up, just had scratches all over) Once on shore, I walked over to the B&J Diving school that Martin recommended and told them I'll register for a diving course as soon as they can provide me with the necessary tools to disinfect everything. And that's how I signed up for an Open Water Certification course.

My next 4 days were spent watching Padi videos, reading the book, taking quizzes and tests, and of course, learning all the skills required by Padi in the water. I was in a class with 2 other people, a local Malaysian/Chinese couple in their 40s who were extremely slow in every aspect. They had a hard time understanding the reading material and videos as well as the instruction under water. The class was dragging on longer than expected and the instructor frustration was quite evident. I was beginning to wish that I came to Malaysia a little earlier and had been in the class with Martin, since he raved about the crazy amounts of fun that it was. The hardest thing to do was to remove my mask underwater, put it back on and get rid of the water. The first attempt at this resulted with me inhaling water somehow, which is an extremely unpleasant experience, by the way. The thought of quitting definitely crossed my mind after that. I eventually mastered the skill and was able to do the final "swim w/out a mask then put it on" test almost with ease.

I had a food ritual on the island where I ate breakfast at our hotel watching the ocean, which usually consisted of a banana pancake with a cup of Milo (a malt hot chocolate) and a lunch of "cheese roti" with watermelon juice or salad, in the restaurant that I referred to as "colorful" because of its railing.

On my first morning, I got woken up by what seemed to be a very loud earthquake. I hopped outside out of habit only to see a storm all around the island. The thunder was so loud that it was shaking our poor little bungalow. However, it passed quickly leaving behind some great views. :)

On our second evening on the island, we met a group of Europeans who also acquainted shortly before with whom we spent majority of the time on the island. (You guys were a ton of fun and I miss you all) Every day, we ate fresh sea food for dinner on the beach where fresh seafood could be picked (calamari/fish/prawns) and then cooked in any way desired. It later turned out, this favorite restaurant was where Terry worked (The guy who spent a ton of time looking for my stolen mobile phone in the jungle)

See more pictures here:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Kuala Lumpur


I arrived to Kuala Lumpur by bus from Singapore. The bus cost S$20 and was the nicest bus I’ve ever been on; clean, air conditioned with large cushiony seats.

Oh, and I keep forgetting to mention that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road in both Singapore and Malaysia. Breaking out of the habit of looking left before crossing the road is more difficult than I imagined and every time I had to cross the street, I’d feel a teeny amount of stress. Along with driving on the other side come several differences in vehicles. The obvious is the driver sitting on the right side, which also kept confusing me when taking the taxis because I’d walk over to the wrong side and the taxi driver would exclaim with a grin “what, you want to drive?” The oddest thing that comes to mind about the vehicle designed for the other side of the road is the windshield wipers moving in the opposite direction that we’re used to. I’m not sure why, but it really bugged me.

Ok, back to Kuala Lumpur. The bus from Singapore arrived at 4am, much earlier than I calculated. I somehow managed to confuse myself and come to a conclusion that the bus will arrive at 5:30 and Martin, a really nice Czech guy from Edinburgh whom I met on, was supposed to pick me. I hung around the lobby of a fancy hotel that I found down street until Martin found me.

The Equator hostel at Times Square, Kuala Lumpur that Martin found was a nice little place. It was located just behind the large fancy hotel, was several stories high and had about 50 pairs of shoes outside. Being in a Muslim country, the hostel had its rules clearly posted.

The rooms were nice with shared asian bathrooms, meaning shower and toilet are all in one room, often with the shower almost directly above the toilet.

The living room was comfy with a TV and dvds of all the new movies that just came out in theaters in the US. The kitchen was well equipped as well, with tea, hot chocolate and coffee free all day. I was most intrigued by the green faucet in the kitchen. Up until now, I’ve never seen faucets made out of plastic.

While Martin was sleeping, I decided to go to the Petronas Twin Towers in the center of the city. According to the map, it’d be only two stops on the airtrain, which reminded me of Disneyland.

I walked to the train stop ands to my surprise, the train arrived completely full; rush hour. People began pushing to get in once the doors open. I gave it a try as well, but there is no way in hell I was getting in there with my backpack. The doors closed and the train left. I looked around with disappointment and a guy who didn’t get into another door walked over to help. It turns out that the trick is to go 2 stops backwards and get on when it’s partially empty. Good to know!

Petronas towers were exactly what I expected. Beautiful Islam influenced modern buildings stretching up toward the clouds. All sorts of tourists were scattered throughout the park underneath the towers: large groups of Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists as well as quite a few Saudi couples with women wearing full black burkhas. Brought back memories of traveling in Egypt with Masha and Kia.

After traveling in Egypt, I can’t say I was looking forward to staying in another Muslim country. My biggest concern was traveling alone as a woman and how it would be perceived by the locals. Malaysia is nothing like Egypt. The only thing that the two have in common is the religion. People in Kuala Lumpur were very nice and helpful. (Despite good maps, I still managed to get lost tons and asked for help and directions. ) The country has a mix of cultures, Malay, Indian and Chinese. The most common language is of course Malay, but all the signs are in English with smaller Chinese characters below. All 3 cultures speak their own languages and English when communicating to each other. All of the commercials and billboards are also in English.

By a popular request, I will now include pictures of the food. Yes dad, I’m taking photos of my food, just like you do back home ☺
I grabbed some early lunch with Martin at an Indian restaurant two steps away from our hostel. He recommended Roti Chanai, a pancake crepe type pastry often filled with something. Mine had eggs and onion.

In the evening, the owner of the hostel took a group of people for a traditional meal outside of the touristy zone. It was a buffet full of unfamiliar scary things all served on top of a blue purplish coconut rice with all sorts of spices. To my surprise, it tasted amazing… I actually liked the spices! ( I generally don’t like spices, even black pepper, right Vanya?)

After dinner, a few of us went for a walk to the Petronas towers because I wanted to get a night shot of them. We figured it couldn’t be that hard since they can be seen from everywhere. The difficulty as it turned out was to get across a highway that ran through the city. We walked through several sketchy neighborhoods with the locals gladly greeting us with “Halo” as we passed. After several miles of walking, we finally asked for directions and found a way to the other side. It was a very nice experience, just walking around and seeing what life is like.

At 9:55, we arrived to the towers and just as I set up a tripod to include the waterfalls in the foreground of my shot, the clock hit 10 and the waterfalls shut down. Damn!

This is Jula, a German girl who I met at the hostel with whom I later traveled for 2 weeks. This was the end of her 7 month journey around the world.

From Kuala Lumpur, I went up north to Cameron Highlands with Jula and Martin where my tooth started hurting quite bad, possibly due to changing air pressure after the rain storm. I figured continuing with such a strong tooth pain is a bad idea and that I better go back to KL and see a dentist. But how in the world would I figure out which dentist to go to? On travbuddies, Faisal wrote to me a while back offering help with anything I might need while traveling in KL, so I emailed asking him if he has a good dentist. When I returned from Cameron Highlands, he picked Jula and me up from the bus station, took me to a dentist who fixed my tooth in a jiffy, saying that the reason why it’s been hurting is due to an air pocket between my tooth and the filling. Afterwards, Faisal had to go to work, so he just dropped me off at his apartment to relax and instructed me to turn on channel 103 at 8:40pm. Turns out he does sports news for TV3 in Kuala Lumpur.

He was nice enough to host me for a few days until I went to Tioman as well as my short returns between my other destinations in Malaysia.

Completely off topic… I spotted this sign from a rooftop restaurant where I was hoping to get some pictures of the twin towers. No twin towers, but Mom and Dad, I thought you’d appreciate this.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sipadan and Mabul Islands, Malaysia


I left Kota Kinabalu on a 7:30pm overnight bus to Semporna.The bus was reserved for me by the agency that booked the Sipadan Scuba trip and was to cost RM75, but hey, it was a 10.5 hour bus, so it’s somewhat reasonable. I later found out that other people were able to bargain the prices down to RM40, which is what locals pay. Why didn’t I think of that? :(

A little information about Sipadan, which happens to be a world class diving site:
The island is located in the Celebs Sea, rising 600 meters above the seabed. Over 3000 species of fish and hundreds species of coral can be found on this island that is formed by coral growing on an atoll. It is considered one of the richest marine habitats in the world, therefore it’s no wonder it’s one of the best diving spots in the world according to a few scuba magazines. At the bottom of the column of the island, formed by a limestone cave with a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers lies a turtle tomb that contains many skeletal remains of turtles that got lost and drowned ☹

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When on the bus, I was hoping to get a row to myself, but it was fully booked, so I sat next to a young guy who spoke minimal English. He was nice enough to let me have the window seat. When the bus started moving, we got 3 items: a water bottle, a chocolate cookie bar and a plastic bag. I asked the guy next to me, is the bag for trash. He laughed and shook his head answering me with a gesture demonstration that it’s for vomiting. Funny, are they predicting that the passengers will get sick from water and chocolate? LOL, obviously not. The second gesture that my neighbor displayed was the wavy road through the mountains.

The bus ride was mostly fine, but very bumpy. We arrived an hour early, which didn’t thrill me because it was 4:30am. I was told that I can either go to a hostel and get a bed there for a few hours or hang out at the bus station. When I walked of the bus, I was rushed by a bunch of men asking me where I was going, what I wanted to do and claimed that they can help with anything that I need. I politely declined everything and sat down on the stone bench. Wow, 3 hours to kill, what do I do? People periodically approached me and offered to book me a hotel or a scuba diving trip in broken English, but I was able to convince them that everything was arranged and someone was meeting me in a few minutes. Of course, no one was meeting me, I need to walk across town to the Billabong office by 7:30am, but they didn’t need to know that. There was a woman with a small child sitting at the bus stop as well, so I figured I’d approach her for help. She spoke enough English to explain to me that the hostel is 2km away and that if I want to go there, I need to take one of the private taxis because that’s the only kind of a taxi that exists in the village. I opted for waiting at the bus stop because all the taxi drivers were just too eager to help, always a red flag in my book. The woman said that she’ll walk with me and help me find the billabong office. I had a drawn map of how to get there, but the map turned out to be useless until I was in front of the building. She told me that the reason why she was there waiting is because the office for national ids is located in that village and she had been waiting for 2 years to receive her card. Once she got her card at 8am, she would return back to KK on the next overnight bus. I asked why she couldn’t receive the card by mail and she told me that you have to travel to pick up your card in person. Messed up!

Once I found the office, I was rushed over to the boat that would take me to Mabul, and island on which my hotel/hostel was located. The boat was a decent size boat, partially covered with a cloth roof fitting 8 people comfortably. Shortly after leaving shore, it started to rain and the water got choppy and the wooden bench was no longer comfortable to my bottom. The rain drops hitting my face would hurt pretty bad so I managed to get my jacket on just right to protect my face. This brutal boat ride lasted about an hour and I was drenched by the time we got to the hotel. Once again, we were rushed to get gear and back onto the boat to dive at Sipadan.

I was told by the dive master that because my reservation was made so late, I had to register with someone else’s name. So on Monday, I was Rachel Carey from the UK and I didn’t remember my passport number. A short boat ride from Mabul was the famous Sipadan island, which didn’t look too impressive with dark grey clouds around and sprinkling rain. I registered as Rachel, as I was instructed and off we went for my first dive outside the Open Water course, South Point. The dive master said that we will dive to 30 meters, which is out of my certification but not to worry. He stuck with me throughout the entire dive, dragging me by the hand half the time to show me all kinds of neat things. As soon as we descended, we saw a few sharks both above and below us.

We hung around the sharks for a while so that everyone had a chance to get some pictures and then proceeded to look for turtles.

The underwater world was so colorful, with bright yellow, white and black angel fish, blue sea slugs, gigantic clams, hard and soft coral of all imaginable colors, sharks, turtles, frog fish, leaf fish, lion fish, anemones, clown fish (Nemo) and many many more.

It was very odd thinking that my 30 meter depth under water was like the height of a 10 floor building, because when looking up, the surface looked so close. After a 40 minute dive, we ascended to the surface and it was quite a bit of a shock. The first thing I felt were heavy cold raindrops hitting me on top of the head. When I looked around, it looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie where a ship wrecked. We were all floating in dark grey water with minimal visibility, hard rain coming down and gigantic waves rocking us up and down, waiting for our boat to come find us. The boat couldn’t have arrived sooner because this shipwreck feeling was quite unpleasant.

The second and third dives had much better weather, After short breaks for food on the island, we did a 47minute dive in the Hanging Gardens and a 47 minute dive at the Barracuda Point.

After resting from the dives at the hotel, I went for a walk through the village. I was shocked at the number of children running around. It seemed like there must have been 10 children for each adult on the island, a really crazy ratio. They came running after me, screaming “halo, halo.” When they saw my camera, they pulled me in all sorts of directions begging me to take a picture, trying to do all kinds of things to get my attention.

Continuing that the town, the adults displayed similar behavior, but on a different level. They would all say “halo” with big smiles and ask if I wanted to take a picture. Was very hard to decline. I found an older couple running a small shop, who didn’t ask me to take their picture and instead I asked them. They gladly agreed.

[insert a picture of the old couple]

The village itself seemed incredibly poor. The building were simple wooden shacks with no furniture inside. People just had mattresses on the floor and lots of creativity was used for common western luxuries. The plant pots were old used paint containers and clothes were hung to dry on a barbed wire fence, which may come as a shock to the western travelers. However, the people seemed happy, they appeared satisfied with their lifestyle.

The next morning, I went out for 3 more dives. A Russian guy who had just arrived in the morning joined the dive group and it was nice to speak Russian for once. He was an experienced diver and pointed out many cool things underwater along w/the dive master. The first dive was at Kapalai House Reef. Other than the fact that this used to be an island 200 years ago and was eroded, I really don't have much history on what the underwater structures are unfortunately :( The other two dives were at Water Bungalows and at the Eel Garden.

Travel Info:
I booked my trip from the Summer Lodge Hostel in KK. One of the ladies running the hostel, Betty, always came to the rescue to make a successful booking when everyone else in town said there was no availability and that I should have thought about booking weeks ago.

A taxi from the center to the Inanam bus station should cost about RM20. The bus from the Inanam bus station to Simporna should take around 10 hours and the cost can be bargained down to RM40.

When in Simporna, wait for the sunrise before trying to find your way to the reservation office as the town can be a little sketchy. From what I heard, Uncle Chang’s is one of the nicer agencies to book with. The hotel is nice and clean with wonderful and helpful staff. Uncle Chang's, as well as Scuba Jeff, Scuba Junkie and Billabong all sell all inclusive packages which include diving, hotel, 3 meals/day and to/from island transportation. My trip with 6 dives (3 Sipadan/3 Mabul) cost around RM800, but it can be done for cheaper if booking ahead.

I dove with Billabong which was fine, but it wasn’t as nice as some of the other places. The hotel itself wasn’t super nice, everything was very poorly organized, no one had their Padi license to show and an instructor by the name of Keri, a rude, bitchy, unpleasant girl from South Africa are all good reasons not to book with them. That said, if there is no other option, book through them because Sipadan is absolutely amazing and should not be missed because of the above reasons.

If traveling during the rainy season, be sure to bring a windbreaker and a rain coat as the boat drive can be very cold and unpleasant during rain on the way to and from the island. There are no ATMs on the island, so if you’re planning on buying any snacks or supplies, withdraw in Simporna. All scuba, snorkeling and underwater photography gear can be rented on the island, so you’re not expected to have your own. Cell phones do work on the island and wifi can be found at a few hotels. Uncle Chang’s charges RM6/hour for the internet.

Here are some pictures of the Billabong hotel/dive shop

And here's a shot from the deck of Uncle Chang's hotel which I should have stayed in.

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